In a significant victory for public water suppliers in California, a state appellate court largely upheld the trial court in a historic groundwater case involving communities along the Central Coast.
Importantly, the opinion upholds the public water suppliers’ prescriptive rights, rights to the return flows derived from imported water and rights to salvaged water. Where the appeal raised over 100 issues, the opinion only remanded two minor issues to the trial court for clarification.
Two farming groups appealed the trial court’s judgment in the coordinated, complex Santa Maria groundwater cases. The appeal sought to overturn several aspects of the judgment, and the farmers’ arguments were largely rejected by the 6th District Court of Appeal. The appellate court, in its November 21, 2012 ruling, found that the trial court properly exercised its equitable powers to enter a physical solution, meaning a groundwater management plan that resolved conflicting water rights claims, and that a current water shortage is not a prerequisite to enter into such a plan. The appellate court also found that the evidence was sufficient to support a prescriptive rights finding for certain public water suppliers. Finally, the appellate court found that the farmers had no right to return flows or salvaged water.
The opinion, reached after arguments made by Best Best & Krieger attorneys on behalf of the city of Santa Maria, represents an important victory for public water suppliers, with the Court of Appeal recognizing and partially relying upon the declaration in Water Code section 106 that the use of water for domestic purposes is the “highest use” for water in California.
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